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Racked Reviews: The Conran Shop

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Racked's reviews are penned by Aaron Bernstein, a.k.a. The Shophound. Today, he peruses the goods at home store The Conran Shop.

Photos Krieger 8/9/07.

Those of us who have lived in Manhattan for a while might expect The Conran Shop to recall the old Conran's stores, which were a great source for high-quality, basic, well-priced furniture and housewares. The stores were the brainchild of renowned designer Sir Terence Conran, who originally started the chain in England as "Habitat" to sell his own furniture designs, and they reflected his passion for good design at all price levels (if you like Crate & Barrel, you have him to thank). Conran lost control of his company after mergers and bankruptcies, and the American division was liquidated, paving the way for the expansions of Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and even Ikea. The new version mostly leaves the humbler price points to the West Elms and CB2s with a decidedly upscale point of view.

Sir Terence retained the rights to the more luxurious European Conran Shops, and returned to New York in 1999 with a new store and Guastavino's restaurant reviving the majestic arches of the mostly forgotten bridgemarket space under the 59th Street Bridge. While Guastavino's failed to replicate the buzzy success of Conran's London restaurants, the retail store has quietly carried on out of the spotlight. Conran has been such an influence on retailers that his triumphant return to New York has been somewhat deflated by stores like Design Within Reach who have been popularizing the same classic Eames and Arne Jacobsen furniture that he spotlights. Unfortunately, the Mid-Century modern revival was already in full swing when Conran reappeared, robbing him of some well-deserved credit.

The store itself still reflects its owner's love of a striking setting with a greenhouse-like street-level structure reflecting the curves of the nearby bridge in its swooping roofline. This area focuses on gift items and accessories with a great selection of reasonably-priced glassware lining one wall, and amusing novelty and arcane items like a portable Doney Television by Brionvega—a great design, but hopelessly outmoded in the age of the flat screen and, at $850, for hard-core collectors only. The focus on 20th-century design in this section of the store recalls the MoMA Design Store, which is not necessarily a bad thing. ENO, Edition Nouveau Objets, a newly launched collection of affordable home accessories by young designers, represents the future.

Downstairs, an expansive space features furniture for indoors and out, bed and bath, housewares, cookbooks and the sorts of toys design-minded grown-ups like to give children. Nepotism abounds as tableware from Conran's children—fashion designer Jasper and pie-maker Sophie—are featured. Some items rely too heavily on irony, like the porcelain tableware collection molded in the shapes of tin cans and metal pie pans, which are clever and meticulously detailed, but a bit too jokey for everyday use. Also featured are Marc Newsom's luggage for Samsonite as well as the many plastic items of Phillipe Starck. The strength here is breadth of selection combined with a still rigorous taste level. The Conran Shop collects many items available in design stores around the city from familiar brands like Alessi, Iittala and even Comme des Garçons and brings them all together in one stop shopping for design heads, but those looking for the humbler Conran's of the past will be disappointed.

What we loved: The big selection of classic and contemporary modern design. The high level of authenticity. Those earthenware plates are more expensive than the ones at Pottery Barn because they are the English-made original versions that have been knocked off everywhere. Almost everything has a design pedigree of some sort with an emphasis on modern English products, naturally.

What it lacked: We admit we missed the well-priced basics of the old Conran's. There are fewer exclusive products than we expected. Much of the stock here is widely available at other stores in the city, possibly at better prices. While they make good use of the location, it's still off our radar and, let's face it, right next to the bridge. Pricing is a little questionable. Why were the exact same glasses we bought for $1.95 at Crate & Barrel last week priced at $3.50 here?

Décor: Minimalist to spotlight the merchandise, exemplified by the street-level glass house.

Service: A low key, but not haughty or snobbish, which is highly conducive to browsing. We were not ignored, but considering the amount of time we spent, we would have expected a little more attention.